Ethnic studies and legal studies major Yordanos Dejen was elected this spring to lead UC Berkeley’s undergraduate student government, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC). She and her two brothers are Bay Area natives whose parents came to the United States in the early 1980s as refugees from political conflict in Ethiopia. Over the summer, Berkeley News visited Dejen in San Francisco, where she was interning at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to learn more about the ASUC’s new president and what she hopes to accomplish in that role.
Berkeley News: What’s at the top of your agenda as ASUC president?
Yordanos Dejen: The new Lower Sproul Plaza is opening this fall. Student organizations, student government, the UC Berkeley Public Service Center — all of those are going to be housed in the ASUC Student Union complex. It’s going to be kind of a one-stop shop for students.
Using Lower Sproul as a hub, I’m interested in creating events and programs to create a stronger Cal community, a larger Cal experience or connection. Many students come and find their group – mariachi band or student government or whatever — and then stay in their group. We want to challenge people: find your niche, because that’s a necessity, but also take time to learn from someone with whom you wouldn’t normally cross paths. And take that back to your group, to learn from others.
Student mental health was something you raised when you ran for the ASUC Senate. What got you interested in that issue?
In high school I volunteered at a mental-health center for runaway, homeless youth, and learned a lot there. When I got to college I saw how many students fell under the burden of competitiveness, the pressure of “I’m at Cal, so I have to be the best. I have to get that A.”
When you start putting your other needs on the back burner, you can only do that for so long before you crash. Some students take brain-stimulant drugs or caffeine pills to enhance their performance. But as a result, they don’t sleep. All of those things add up. It’s unnecessary, because one test won’t define you.
I’d like students to realize it’s OK to not always be the best. I think it’s important to create spaces for people to have those conversations, where mental-health issues aren’t stigmatized.
The four new ASUC leaders – yourself and the three vice presidents — are all women of color. Is that a first?
It’s the first all women of color, yes – the execs. Which is very weird to say, because it’s 2015 and it’s surprising that it hasn’t been done before. So we can check off the first box: Now we have four women of color. But the question is: What are we going to do, as four women of color, to make sure that legacy stays?
How did your parents react to your being elected ASUC president?
With my mom the question, when I ran for president, was not “Why are you running?” but “Are you happy that you’re running?” As long as I was happy, she was happy for me. My dad, on the other hand, loves politics. So he was like “Yeah, you better run!”
After the election, my mom asked me the same question: “Are you happy?” When I said “yes,” she was like “OK, then I’m happy for you.” It’s nice having very supportive parents, who just want the best for me, whatever that is.
Reportedly you’ve done a lot of work to support other students academically.
Yes. I myself was in the Summer Bridge Program when I was coming into Cal, and it was fundamental to my success — my first introduction to college and a very safe space, though challenging. They help you practice and transition, and it creates a community for you to fall back on academically, personally.
In my sophomore year I began working as a Summer Bridge mentor. It was the greatest experience ever. It’s easy to forget how scared you were, that summer coming into college and your first year.
I also volunteer for the Athletic Study Center, providing academic support for Cal athletes, men and women. It’s rewarding to share techniques and strategies on how to write in college. And student-athletes teach me a lot. They remind me what’s possible if you have ambition. Many of them have morning practice, then classes, then more practice, then hours of tutoring, and then they go home and do homework, and the next day do it all over again.
Do you visit Ethiopia with your family, and what is that like for you?
My family and I try to go every two years. Ethiopia is very serene; it’s calming and it’s very pretty. I try to live like the people live, not in lavish hotels. Many of my relatives live in the most rural part of Ethiopia, with no running water, no electricity. You take a shower every two or three days; it’s in a tub and it’s cold. Most of my trip is spent with them.
For me that’s very rewarding. I’m reminded that all the worries we take on here, they’re not necessarily anything to worry about. It grounds me in the pure idea that happiness, in the simplest way, is just family and good food.